Although it’s perhaps most well known for its rock climbing, Utah is home to plenty of great alpine climbing too.
The Wasatch Range is jam-packed with moderate alpine routes, and it’s a great place to practice technical rock, ice, and mixed routes in alpine conditions without dealing with the effects of extremely high elevation. All told, alpine climbing in Utah is a great way to train for higher peaks.
Why Go Alpine Climbing in Utah?
As mentioned above, Utah offers sustained technical alpine routes at a relatively low elevation, in comparison to other states with alpine climbing such as Colorado and Wyoming—not to mention Alaska.
Utah has no peaks higher than 14,000 feet and only a single summit over 13,000 feet (Kings Peak). Mount Nebo, the highest peak in the Wasatch Range, is only 11,877 feet. Many of the best alpine routes in Utah will see climbers reach no higher than 10,000 or 11,000 feet. This makes Utah a great place to practice alpine skills without dealing with the added risks that come with the altitude on higher summits.
Utah is also unique in that many of the state’s best alpine routes are only an hour or so from Salt Lake City, a major metropolitan area with an international airport.
If you’re a local Utahan, obviously your own state’s climbing will be the most convenient and accessible. But if you’re coming from further afield, Utah still offers extremely accessible climbing. In fact, every single one of the peaks in our “Top 5 Utah Alpine Routes” list is no more than an hour from Salt Lake City International Airport. It’s possible to fly into SLC on a Friday, tackle an alpine climb in the Wasatch with a guide on Saturday, and be headed home Sunday morning!
Our Top 5 Utah Alpine Routes
The following routes are some of our favorite classics, but for a more comprehensive list of alpine climbs (specifically in the Wasatch Range) see the dedicated Wasatch Alpine Climbs page on SummitPost.
Mount Superior via the South Ridge
Superior’s South Ridge is a steep snow line and a first-class route involving 3,000 feet of climbing (up to 5.6 YDS) and scrambling to reach the peak’s prominent summit at 11,045 feet. Climbers typically approach this line from the snow-filled “Suicide Chute” and the ridge above features a mix of rock and snow. Though the majority of the rock on the route is 4th class, you’ll probably rope up for the 1,000 feet of exposed climbing along the ridge’s legendary knife-edge. This route takes six to 10 hours, and while not required, some prior rock climbing experience is recommended even if you intend to climb it with a guide.
Pfeifferhorn via the North Ridge
The pyramidal Pfeifferhorn (11,331 feet)’s North Ridge is widely considered one of the best alpine routes in Utah. Like Superior’s South Ridge, this route entails a mixture of snow and rock climbing (up to 5.5 YDS). However, it’s a more committing endeavor, typically requiring an overnight trip to complete (though it can be climbed in one day by experienced parties).
Climbing this route with a guide requires previous mountaineering and alpine climbing experience, as well as excellent fitness. Most parties will set up camp around 10,000 feet after an approach from Little Cottonwood Canyon, then ascend a steep snow couloir the following morning to gain the ridge proper. From here, you’ll climb moderate rock using fixed belays (generally around seven pitches) before climbing a moderate snow ribbon to the summit. Typically parties descend via the mellower East Ridge, which is also home to a great alpine route.
Toledo Peak via the West Ridge
The West Ridge of Toledo (10,530 feet) entails a 2,000-foot ascent, following a cross-country ski or snowshoe approach, with a round trip time of only six to eight hours. You’ll climb a variety of chimneys and exposed aretes, practice snow climbing techniques, use both fixed and running belays, and learn about rock protection. This is an excellent beginner alpine climb, and no prior mountaineering or rock climbing experience is needed to climb it with ITCOG, though you’ll need to be in good shape!
Sundial Peak via Eleventh Hour (5.8)
Eleventh Hour (5.8) on the pristine North Face of Sundial Peak (10,320 feet) is a spectacular four-pitch alpine rock climb. Eleventh Hour is oft-cited as one of the best moderate multi-pitch routes in the state. Sundial Peak, meanwhile, is actually the symbol of the Wasatch Mountain Club, and presents a sublime backdrop during the approach, rising high over Lake Blanche. Like many of the best alpine routes in Utah, this peak can easily be accessed from the popular Big Cottonwood Canyon Trailhead. The route entails a three-mile approach entailing 3,000 vertical feet of gain, so bring your mountain legs!
Lone Peak via Open Book (5.7)
The five-to-six-pitch Open Book (5.7) on Lone Peak (11,253 feet) is another spectacular route for folks looking for alpine rock climbing in Utah. This line snakes up a diverse series of granite formations, entailing everything from dihedrals to off-widths to chimneys to twin cracks during it’s 600-foot length. It also holds the distinction of leading you to the highest point of the Lone Peak Cirque. Open Book is a serious alpine climb, and should only be undertaken by those with climbing experience, though a guide can get you up it even if you’re a novice climber.
How to Train for Alpine Climbing
Climbing in alpine Utah, or climbing in the alpine anywhere else, is nothing to take lightly. From avalanches to rockfall to frostbite to the biggest danger of all—gravity—there’s a lot to deal with on an alpine climb.
Alpine climbing training will, at a base level, involve familiarizing yourself with technical climbs at lower elevations, outside of the alpine biome. That means practicing lead climbing, first in a climbing gym, then on bolted routes outside, and eventually placing your own rock protection. It also means practicing technical ice climbing, and eventually transitioning into multi-pitch routes (ideally both rock and ice).
You should also practice winter travel in the backcountry, familiarizing yourself with avalanche risk, crevasses, navigation, basic crampon and glacier axe technique, and other mountaineering skills.
Once you’re a competent multi-pitch climber on rock and ice and have experience traveling and camping in the backcountry during winter conditions, you can begin to put your skills to the test at higher elevations, and work your way up from there.
Physical fitness, of course, is extremely important, but by focusing on the climbing, your fitness will naturally improve at the same time. Be sure to take into account the elevation of any climb you embark on. (Covering ground quickly at 6,000 feet is much easier than doing it at 11,000 feet!)
Need Someone to Show You the Ropes? Come Climb with Us!
Don’t be fooled by the 5.8 and 5.7 grade of the alpine climbs mentioned above. These aren’t 5.7s in your local rock gym. The alpine routes listed in this article (and any alpine route, for that matter) are significant endeavors, and shouldn’t be undertaken by novice climbers without a trained guide.
Like we mentioned in the section above, alpine climbing is a technical, advanced discipline, often combining many different aspects of rock climbing, mountaineering, ice climbing, and backcountry travel. If you’re just getting started, the safest and fastest way to learn to alpine climb is with an experienced, IFMGA-certified Mountain Guide.